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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Varanasi 1976: Rickshaw Driver, Boatman, Wrestler

Panorama of Varanasi near Kedar Ghat 1976 (click to enlarge)

This is the first of three visits to Varanasi, this one in 1976. The two subsequent visits in 2000 and 2006 will be posted in a few days, as soon I sort out the 300 or so images for each later visit into chapters. Together they will provide a timeless portrait of an ancient timeless city and enable you to wander the alleys winding between the ghats as if you were there yourself.

Each visit has its own unique story to tell. This one no less intriguing than the others to come.

My first visit to Varanasi was on my first sabbatical leave. I arrived in the city by train at night and was immediately besieged by a line of cycle rickshaw drivers all desperately trying to get me to take their offer.

Rather than reject their entreaties, I set my steely gaze along the eyes facing me and one of them stood out for his sincerity. Given it was the middle of the night he simply took me down the road from the station into town in the dark and took me into a nameless small Indian hotel which charged 22 rupees, pretty expensive for the time and my pocket, but as he dropped me off he appealed to me to let him take me around the ghats next morning, so finding his manner genuine, I agreed.

Next day he took me on what began as a traditional rickshaw tour to try to get me to buy silk scarves embroidered with silver and gold threads for a small fortune and to take a boat trip on the Ganges for some 20 rupees - highway robbery in my terms as a wandering sadhu. I moved immediately from the first hotel to the Hotel Commerical, cheaper at 15 rupees, but hideously noisy as it was in a building open to the street with almost no walls or windows.

When I demurred about the price of a boat tour, the rickshaw driver took me down to his home turf in the little alleyways beside Kedar Ghat where his family had lived probably as long as he could remember. He introduced me to his associates in the neighbourhood, who rapidly converged to comprise the original boatman Bhola Nath, who had assured me with great warmth and intensity that he wasn't out to make a quick buck and would be my friend for life, an opium smoking wrestler Raju, who looked after an large Indian house near the ghat, and the rickshaw driver himself.

After another day the wrestler had invited me to stay in a traditional Indian house which was full of families living in bare dark rooms with no windows, but was surprisingly cool because it had a central courtyard which ascended up through three of four stories carrying the hot air up and out of the building. I could lock the huge black wooden doors with a padlock and chain so security was no problem.

Boatman, wrestler and rickshaw driver

I was given an area of about two square feet on the patio outside my room with strict instructions on how to walk to it without stepping on anyone else's space, and there was a specific place on the roof where I could go up and sleep with the key to the door safely round my neck.

Beggars waiting for alms on a route up from the ghats to one of the temples.
This scene at the same spot was unchanged 24 years later in 2000 s you will see.

At evening we were all expected to pitch in to buy opium ghoulies - balls of opium-soaked tobacco - which we all smoked together on the roof. Although now and then I like the taste and hint of the swoon of opium - that ancient medicinal herb that is still essential to medicine, which goes way back to the Egyptians and graces the head of the Goddesses of Crete, I nevertheless find tobacco somewhat hard to handle.

Another oddity of the medicinal herbs was the government ganja shop, which didn't serve hashish, or charas, but ganja balls which were sufficient to make up a milk drink which had a mild but similar effect and served the needs of cannabis-oriented sadhus visiting the sacred city.

The government ganja shop in Varanasi

Of course the city was also flowing with hashish and is to this day. In 2006 I was literally dragged into a house off a ghat-side alley and propositioned with a good kilo of highly aromatic resin, but the idea of a government cannabis outfit remains idiosyncratic and intriguing.

There were also lots of illegal pharmaceuticals freely available on the black market. I bumped into a crooked chemist who was selling packs of morphine and heroin, and inadvertently walked into the house rented by one of his European clients, only to find the place deathly still, with the doors wide open, with comatose people passed clean out in chairs, after dosing on his prescriptions, leaving empty syringes and powdered drugs scattered all over the tables. Needless to say a place to make a quick exit!

Shiva sadhus with tridents walk the alleyways

I also took sitar lessons with a rather crooked sitar teacher, who sold me a bum sitar which didn't twang properly and the bowl fell off after a couple of days because it was only stuck together. After I had it fixed I complained to him and he said "Oh Uncle I wouldn't cheat you! This sitar - it's God!" and he played a raga on it that was so entrancing it brought tears to my eyes and I couldn't continue.

I carried that sitar the length and breadth of India, in a huge case, fighting with bus drivers not to put it on the roof with the crates and chickens, and it saved me, because, when all my money was stolen in Kabul, a man in the street ran up to be and begged me to sell it to him, because he was part of an Indian music group and couldn't get one in Afghanistan for love or money - so the sitar got me $50 US, which got me all the way to Istanbul one way or another.

Of course if you live with the people of Benares, they all tell you you HAVE to submerge yourself in the Ganges, despite the fact that is is full of floating bodies, particularly down river at the burning ghats, but also from upstream cities and heavily polluted, so much some say that it is sterilized by the radioactivity! So, not wanting to appear a spineless sadhu I duly took off my clothes and approached the water down the stairs, thinking to just dip in safely to the neck level.

That was until the slime by the water line got me and I skidded helplessly in, hanging on to my watch with a great splash!

One of the great pleasures of knowing Bhola was that he was both a boatman and a boat builder and many of the batmen and builders go down and sleep the night on the roof of their boats which was an incredible expereince because you wake up on the river with all the people coming down to bathe and to pray at sunrise as the endless life of the city begins anew.

Yours truly with Bhola and one of his off-siders

Building a new boat.
You can see the same thing happening in the 2006 chapter as if time has stood still.

A series of family photos of Bhola and his clan

Another of the nice things about knowing Bhola was that we could go to his place for dinner any night and get a full vegetable plate served by his wife for the very reasonable sum of 2 rupees.

Wrestler with wife and child

Performing a puja for the house

The children

Raju the wrestler with some of the boatmen

An intersection in the centre of Varanasi

Sarnath the deer park where Buddha first taught the dharma

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